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  • Writer's pictureAaron Mead

The Historicity of the Gospels: Bart Ehrman’s Skeptical View

In Chapter 3 of How Jesus Became God, Bart Ehrman begins with a story from his days as a student at Moody Bible Institute in the 1970s. He tells how, as part of the practical Christian ministry component of his education, he served as a youth pastor at a church in a suburb of Chicago and developed a close mentoring relationship with the senior pastor there.

At that time, Moody was a bastion of Christian Fundamentalism—a late-19th- and 20th-century reaction to liberal currents in Protestant theology. Protestant liberals sought to adapt their theology to developments in the sciences and social sciences, including critical historical analysis of the Bible and evolutionary theory. Fundamentalists rejected this adaptation in favor of biblical literalism and an affirmation of the inerrancy of the Bible.

After his Fundamentalist beginnings, Ehrman pursued advanced degrees at Princeton Theological Seminary. He recounts how, during those studies, he came to doubt some of the central tenets of orthodox Christian theology, including the divinity of Jesus. He was impressed by the fact that Jesus is only rarely referred to as divine in the New Testament, and that Jesus only ever refers to himself as divine in the Gospel of John—the historicity of which is often viewed as dubious.

While wrestling with these doubts, he returned to Chicago to visit his former pastor, in the hope of receiving some guidance. The pastor responded by encouraging him to “hold on to the basics,” and by quoting Jesus’s claim in the Gospel of John, “I am the way, the truth, and the life; no one comes to the Father except through me” (John 14:6). Ehrman responded, “But what if Jesus never said that?”

I suspect that many Christians have asked that question before, if not of this particular passage in John then more generally of Jesus’s teachings in the four Gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John). I also suspect that many who have consciously rejected Christian faith (as Ehrman has) have done so at least in part because of similar doubts about the historicity of the Gospels. After all, if the link between the teachings of the church and the life of Jesus is broken, Christianity seems a lot less compelling.

In this post, I will begin to lay out Ehrman’s doubts about the historical reliability of the Gospels as expressed in Chapter 3 of How Jesus Became God and begin to respond to them. I will continue to explain his doubts and respond to them in future posts. My plan is to write a series of posts in running dialogue with his book, since I think the book raises many helpful and interesting questions.

Authorship of the Gospels: The Traditional View

In Chapter 3 of How Jesus Became God, Ehrman raises several reasons for doubting the historicity of the Gospels. First, he suggests that the traditional view of who wrote the Gospels is false.

According to that traditional view, Matthew was written by the tax collector and disciple of Jesus mentioned in that Gospel (Matthew 9:9), Mark was written by the secretary of Jesus’s disciple Peter, Luke was written by a physician and traveling companion of the Apostle Paul, and John was written by “the disciple whom Jesus loved,” as mentioned in that Gospel (e.g., John 13:23).

From a historical perspective, the value of this traditional view is that it connects the writing of the Gospels quite closely to Jesus. Except for Luke, on the traditional view the Gospels were all written either by one of Jesus’s original disciples who were eyewitnesses of his life and teachings, or by someone under the direct guidance of one of those disciples.

And insofar as the Apostle Paul is understood to have had an encounter with the risen Jesus on the road to Damascus and to have had close contact with the original disciples of Jesus (e.g., Acts 15:1-35, Galatians 2:1-10), even Luke is viewed traditionally as written under the authority of someone with a similar personal connection to Jesus. If true, this close link between the authors and Jesus lends historical credibility to the Gospels.

Doubts about the Traditional View

Ehrman rejects the traditional view, however. He correctly notes that the Gospels are anonymous: the authors do not mention their own names in the manuscripts (unlike Paul’s letters, for example). Ehrman claims the traditional attributions are likely wrong since the New Testament describes the followers of Jesus as lower-class, uneducated speakers of Aramaic from Palestine, while the Gospels were clearly written by educated (and therefore not lower-class) people fluent in Greek, not Aramaic. He also suggests that the authors were “Christians of a later generation,” and that “They probably wrote after Jesus’s disciples had all, or almost all, died” (p. 90).

If Ehrman is correct, here, then we ought to feel less sure that the Gospels accurately represent the historical ministry of Jesus, since Ehrman’s view implies that non-eyewitnesses authored the Gospels generations after Jesus lived and taught.

Beginning to Respond to Ehrman

Is Ehrman’s view well-founded? Many of Jesus’s first disciples likely were uneducated—for example, James and John (the “sons of Zebedee”) and Simon Peter are identified as fishermen in the Gospels (e.g., Mark 1:16-20). They likely would have been illiterate.

But, if we are to rely on the New Testament for a picture of Jesus’s early disciples (as Ehrman does in his criticism), it is clear that some educated, higher-class people also became Jesus’s disciples, even while he was alive. For example, Joseph of Arimathea, the disciple reported to have retrieved Jesus’s body from the cross and buried it, is described as “a respected member of the council” in Jerusalem (Mark 15:42-47). This position would hardly make him lower-class and uneducated. So, Ehrman’s implied view that all of Jesus’s early disciples were uneducated is false. There clearly could have been at least a few educated disciples who wrote the Gospels.

Moreover, there is reason to believe that Galilee—the region from which Jesus and his first disciples hailed—was home to many Greek-speakers, since it was on an important trade route (Hurtado and Owen, ‘Who is this Son of Man?’, p. 15). Thus, it is not out of the question that some of Jesus’s early followers spoke Greek, and therefore could have written the Gospels in Greek.

What about Ehrman’s claim that Christians “of a later generation” wrote the Gospels after (or almost after) Jesus’s original disciples had died? Since it would take too many pixels to respond well to this claim here, I’ll respond in my next few posts—one for each Gospel. Stay tuned!

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